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Carved Bamboo Brush Holder

Tags: Ming dynasty | National Palace Museum | vessel | wood


Chu San-hung, Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)
Rim diameter: 8.2-8.5 cm, base diameter: 8.5-8.7 cm, height: 14.0 cm, weight: 220 g 
A segment of a piece of bamboo has been made into a brush holder, with a flat mouth and the dividing part of the bamboo as the bottom. The outside is carved in relief with the image of a lady with an elegant hairstyle standing before a screen reading a handscroll. Another lady is seen hiding behind the screen with her finger to her mouth to indicate silence as she peeks. Behind the screen to the other side is a display that includes a table, flower vase, incense burner, zither, and brush and inkstone. The screen is engraved with a scene of birds and flowers, below which is a signature in regular script that reads, "San-sung". The imagery is very close to the illustration of "Peeking at a Letter" made by the late Ming painter Ch'en Hung-shou (1598-1652) for the woodblock printing of the novel "Romance of the Western Chamber". The appearance of the figures and their clothing in the two is very similar, and the brushwork for the screen painting and flower vase even appear as if cutout from the print and applied to the bamboo. The four-panel screen, however, has been reduced to one panel, and the table display added to provide a setting for Hung-niang hiding behind the screen and to fill out the rounded surface of the holder with a continuous composition. Carving was done into the flat surface of the bamboo, making Hung-niang, the screen, and Ts'ui Ying-ying stand out slightly while also giving depth to the scene and variation in the carving. On top of the figures and screen carved in high relief is engraving for hair, lines, and low relief, concealing the process of carving while also giving full play to the talent of the carver. The artist here paid particular attention to the composition, creating a painterly atmosphere while also seeking to portray sophisticated and complex techniques in carving. The result is a brush holder that can be considered as an exceptional example of the Chia-ting School of bamboo carving. Chu Chih-cheng, who went by the style name Shu-tzu and the sobriquet San-sung, was a native of Chia-ting in Kiangsu. Coming from a family of bamboo carvers, he and his grandfather Chu Ho (Sung-lin) and father Chu Ying (Hsiao-sung) were known as the "Three Chu's of Chia-ting". Also gifted at painting landscapes as well as donkeys, Chu Chih-cheng often paid particular attention in potted landscapes and bamboo carvings to the creation of painterly scenes. Passing through three generations, Chu's technique was exceptionally refined, for which he became famous and attracted many students. Gradually, Chia-ting became known for bamboo carving, with families specializing in its production.

Text: Chi Juo-hsin

Text and images are provided by National Palace Museum